Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Reservists talk to Congress about aerial spray mission

by Col. Bob Thompson, Office of Air Force Reserve

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Six reservists fresh from the fight to save the Gulf of Mexico coast from one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history briefed congressional members and staffers here June 7 and 8.

As part of the military's only fixed-wing aerial spray team, the Airmen flew specially configured C-130 Hercules aircraft 100 feet above the water and sprayed an oil dispersant to break the oil slick into smaller droplets. Then, the detergent-like dispersant pushed the droplets down to the microorganisms that eat the oil.

"On April 28 at 10:30 p.m., we got the call," said Maj. Drew Tancer, a pilot and the operations officer who led the first-responders from Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio. "Fourteen to 15 hours later, we were on scene."

Major Tancer led a team of about 60 reservists and two C-130 aircraft from the 910th Airlift Wing. Working in careful coordination with the Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Reserve aerial spray team covered more than 30,000 acres with oil dispersant in the six weeks they were engaged.

The congressional staffers listened to the reservists' brief, and then asked questions about the oil dispersant and the aerial spraying equipment.

"An oil dispersant is used to mitigate the environmental disaster," said Maj. Mark Breidenbaugh, an entomologist from the 910th AW. "It is like a detergent soap that breaks the oil up and moves it under the water so it stays in the water column. This speeds up the natural process that breaks down the oil."

From May 1 until the reservists left Mississippi on June 4, they flew 92 missions and sprayed nearly 150,000 gallons of oil dispersant on the Gulf of Mexico's spill area.

"It comes down to do you want to fight it on the beach or fight it on the water?" said Col. Fritz Linsenmeyer, the 910th AW commander. "The products we use are pre-approved by the EPA and Coast Guard. And, although this spray is like a soap, you wouldn't put it in the water unless you had to. We want to do anything we can to protect the coast as much as possible from this disaster."

For nearly two decades, members of the 910th AW have participated in oil-spill cleanup exercises with the Coast Guard in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Aerial spray is a unique mission conducted by members of the Air Force Reserve, and the Youngstown Airmen have developed close partnerships with other first-responders and insight into disaster response operations.

"After providing the first response, our military aerial spray operators have now returned to home station," Colonel Linsenmeyer said. "This is normal for these situations."

Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator for the oil spill response, signed a memo releasing the Air Force Reserve planes and people from the spray mission.

Under a transition plan, civilian planes are taking over the delivery of oil dispersant in the gulf waters.

"The military gets things started and now civilian contractors are flying the continuing operations," Colonel Linsenmeyer said. "But, if we're needed to go back, our team is ready at a moment's notice."

"We're proud of what we have contributed to our nation and our communities," Major Breidenbaugh said.